A lawsuit was filed on Wednesday on behalf of three pro-life female protesters in their late teens and early twenties who were partially strip-searched in an August 1 incident after being arrested during a peaceful roadside demonstration in Maryland.
Charging Harford County, the town of Bel Air, and seven police officials with assault and battery, illegal imprisonment, and violations of the First, Fifth, Ninth, and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution, the lawsuit also alleges that police illegally arrested the protesters and made two “sexually intrusive” searches of the three young women’s bodies.
The demonstrators were also allegedly denied access to their lawyers and were not allowed to contact their parents.
Last August 1, eighteen demonstrators participated in the “Face the Truth” Pro-life Tour organized by the group Defend Life. The demonstrators, standing at public roads and intersections, showed pro-life signs and tried to distribute literature. They were told by officers to move from another location because of their lack of a permit, at which point they moved to the town of Bel Air.
According to the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), which filed the lawsuit, at 5:30 pm at least a dozen police officers arrived at the Bel Air demonstration in more than seven marked vehicles and arrested, jailed, shackled, and/or strip searched the demonstrators, allegedly without informing the demonstrators of the reasons for their arrest.
“The truth of the matter is that our clients were heckled, arrested, imprisoned, shackled, and strip searched twice for exercising their First Amendment rights,” said ADF-allied attorney Daniel Cox, who is serving as local counsel. “No excuse exists for how our young clients were treated.”
The three young women named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit include the 20-year-old director of the “Face the Truth” 2008 tour and her 18-year-old sister and assistant director, both Maryland residents. The third plaintiff is an18-year-old from Erie, Pennsylvania.
The three were subjected to two rounds of body searches which the lawsuit claims were embarrassing, humiliating, and “sexually intrusive.”
The first search took place in the police station parking lot in front of other males, where a female officer pulled out the women’s shirt collar to inspect their chests before reaching down their pants to feel around their waistlines.
“These sexually intrusive searches were conducted without any regard for the privacy of the Plaintiffs or the other female participants: one of the searches had been done on a teenage girl who was immediately adjacent to a teenage boy, much to her intense embarrassment and shame,” the lawsuit claims.
Upon being detained at the station by 6:30 p.m., the lawsuit further alleges, “they were not told why they were being held or when they could expect to be charged or released,” adding that one plaintiff repeatedly asked for permission to call her parents but was denied each time.
The detained demonstrators were transferred to Harford County Detention Center later that night, with the transfers not ending until after 2:30 a.m.
The second search then took place at the detention center, where a female officer took the women individually into a bathroom with a partially open door. There, she ordered them to lift up their shirts and brassieres.
A woman unconnected with the demonstration, who was detained at the center and charged with check fraud, reportedly said she herself had not been searched “in nearly so intrusive a manner,” the lawsuit says. The woman also stated that she overheard police officers planning to arrest the demonstrators but added that the officers first consulted together to determine what charges could be brought against them.
Other demonstrators also claimed officers had arrested them without knowing what charges they could file against those arrested.
Demonstrators were constrained by leg irons and were not informed that attorneys Steve Peroutka and Scott Whiteman had been prohibited from having any contact with them after arriving at the station, according to an Alliance Defense Fund press release.
The plaintiffs were eventually charged with loitering, disorderly conduct, and failure to obey a lawful order. The charges were dismissed on August 12.
“The state shouldn’t persecute Christians for expressing their beliefs on important social issues, nor deny them their constitutional rights,” said ADF Senior Counsel Kevin Theriot. “This incident paints an ugly picture of the state of religious freedom and free speech in America today.”